Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Debt$, librarie$ and $chool$

Last night we actually made pretty good progress. Better than I had anticipated, anyway. Such is the upside of low expectations.

We started with Debt Service: Nice and easy. Making payments on money we have borrowed is not exactly discretionary spending. Hearkens again to last Friday’s Dilbert (and now I’ve linked to it, so you’ll actually know what I’m talking about . . . The exponent really makes it.) Not so fast. In a valiant but futile last-ditch effort to stymie the Plum Brook soccer fields, one member challenged the technicalities of funding this portion of the debt with Community Preservation Act funds. But it was pointed out that this project has long been recognized as allowable under CPAC monies, and so this effort was in vain. The amendment was defeated. Oddly, there was no further discussion on debt service and we were able to vote on the Finance Committee’s recommended appropriation of $1,797,573, which passed overwhelmingly. And I supported it.

Library Services: Definitely inspires more passions than debt service. This sought to approve the library budget as a whole, and the amount to be appropritated through taxation. The Library Board and Select Board were in agreement with the Finance Committee recommendation. (Once again, all the details of all these recommendation are available in the Finance Committee Report, Part 2, if you want them.) Of course, everyone loves the libraries, so a motion by a TM member to amend the appropriation upward by $10,000 got plenty of supportive discussion. Reading is important. Really important for kids. Especially if you want them to learn. That line of reasoning probably would have prevented us from closing the libraries and selling off all the books in order to balance the budget, but it was not sufficient to persuade the body to restore funding to prevent cutting hours at the branch locations to 5 half-days each week from 6. The motion for that extra money failed in a tally vote of 53 supporting, 104 opposed, and I voted to oppose. A tally vote with such a lopsided outcome? Yeah, it was just that kind of a night. The appropriation vote quickly followed, and nearly unanimously we approved the $2,033,196 budget, and appropriated $1,446,695 from taxation. I voted in support.

Onward to the schools. This had been shaping up to be the Battle Royal of the 247th annual Town Meeting, where everyone who’s angry about their property taxes would rant, and everyone with children would tell sob stories, and everyone who has ever been to school would compare their experience with school today. We would put our fingers all over the budget proposal – 2nd graders need more art! Caring communities start kids on physics in 3rd grade! Let’s charge desk rental fees! We would dredge up the public safety debate, the genetically engineered crops debate and the human services funding debate, all to make indignant points about too much spending or not enough.

But none of that happened.

Thanks to the united front presented by the Finance Committee, the School Committee and the majority of the Select Board, there wasn’t much to say. If they all agree, how could we disagree?

It wasn’t quite as simple as that, but nearly so. For the elementary schools budget, a couple of people spoke against the recommendation. One member parent who has a lot of issues with the school system and School Committee, and believes they prioritize bureaucracy over children’s needs, made an unsuccessful effort to get the recommendation referred back to the School Committee. Another member felt that other avenues for cost savings hadn’t been pursued. An ex-officio member who believes the student enrollment trends have not supported the increases in administration and staffing warned of worsening future budget situations. The director of the Hitchcock Center urged the school committee to reconsider cuts to its award-winning science program, the ECOBUS. Various people spoke to how terrible it is to eliminate teachers, or inquired about different costs and decisions about cuts.

The School Committee countered or explained all the concerns. And in another near-unanimous vote, we approved the Finance Committee’s recommendation of $19,264,119.

Discussion on the regional school district monies – approving its total budget, and appropriating Amherst’s share – was about the same. Well, except for when it wasn’t, but back to that shortly. Actual discussion about this issue was almost entirely limited to the recommendations by the FC, SB and SC, who again were in agreement. Everyone recognizes that this was a bad budget year and no one wanted to make the cuts that are being made, but that was how it had to go. We came to the vote quickly, and it was again nearly unanimous to approve the regional budget of $26,704,016, and to appropriate Amherst’s share of $11,904,067. I supported the FC recommendations for both of the school budget votes.

But back to where discussion on this topic went awry.

There is a small group seemingly bent on provoking the moderator. In every choice he makes of whom to recognize, they see favoritism, sexism, criticism and every other ism. They obsess over perceived procedural flaws. Some are in a perpetual state of high dudgeon, while others relish their role as “the gotcha gang.” They are aggravated and determined to aggravate. And so they did.

The meltdown was over allowing extra speaking time for the School Committee chair/vice-chair of the regional SC. Complaints of unfairness. The moderator blows his top. Various members blow their tops. Is it because we’re all tired and have had about enough after more than 20 hours of TM so far? Apparently not, because if that were the case we surely wouldn’t have prolonged things further by demanding a quorum count at such a late hour over a non-issue, right? But we did. (The nerve of so many people not showing up at all or leaving early such that a quorum would be in question may be fodder for a future post, but I digress.) Ultimately, we have a quorum, we give the speaker more time, and the result is near unanimous approval of the budget recommendation.

There. Happy?

We closed with the election of Jim Pistrang as temporary moderator to fill in during Harrison Gregg’s absence. In light of what had just transpired, his willingness to serve in that capacity could only be considered heroic. Or insane.

And so we adjourned until Wednesday.

Random Bits:

We learned that the library charges late fees for books only on the honor system, so as not to discourage borrowing and reading, but they will enforce dollar-a-day fees on videos and DVDs. Oddly, that makes late returns to Blockbuster a “better deal.”

Speaking of lending books and videos for free, isn’t that competing with various local businesses? Surely someone is mad about that. (Stop it Stephanie! Don’t encourage them!)

Reports of much knitting this time. The most surprising ancillary activity though was a crossword puzzle. Some people clearly have much better ability to walk and chew gum at the same time than I do.

This was the eighth session of Town Meeting, and the 5th Red Sox –Yankees game that has conflicted with TM so far. An explanation, perhaps, of why attendance has been so poor?

Suffice it to say, I move around a lot. With that, I officially end my increasingly uninteresting seating report. While I’m at it, no more about knitting and no more about baseball either. Tomorrow is a brand new day.


Richard Morse said...

Re: Mr. Gregg's troubles last night

"It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly...who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause...Teddy Roosevelt, 1910

(Since it's Amherst, where form sometimes trumps substance, for "man", please read "man or woman".)

Mr. Gregg's exertions to be fair and respectful to others is just the kind of "worthy cause" Roosevelt had in mind.

Richard Morse, Precinct 7

Anonymous said...

Yikes! I wouldn't go THAT far.

If Mr Gregg were the warrior Mr. Roosevelt had in mind, he would be a tad less ready for cardiac rehab at the Cooley Dick.

Anonymous said...

and with warm remarks like that he should feel even more encouraged to serve.

Anonymous said...

Attendance is low because of Red Sox games? I find that hard to believe. I am sure someone could do an analysis of games/meeting nights and see if there is a pattern. But, Fall Town meeting has similar attendance records.

There are some memmbers that have not shown up at all.

Anonymous said...

Like Morris Singer for instance. The Umass whiz kid who helped save Town Meeting last year by writing an editorial in the Collegian days before the election (not to mention driving around on election day using a PA system to get out the vote) cajoling students to vote down the Charter:

“Let's get out there on March 29 and show the town of Amherst that we are not simply a transient student population to be ignored. Let's show them what we think and let's make a difference.”

I guess it's the (very) old "do as say and not as I do" routine.

Larry Orloff said...

Viewing the Friday Dilbert strip, I see Alice transmogrified into Hwei-Ling, demonstrating the incontrovertible, that $500K, not $1M should be taken out of the Stabilization Fund, excruciatingly painful though that would be. Otherwise, next year we CANNOT further draw down the Fund and operating expenses will be GREATER.


Larry Orloff, Precinct 3